Child support mix-up must not happen again

Monday, December 17, 2001

P Taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for such an embarrassing mistake.

The $1.2 million mistake last month in Missouri child support payments raises serious questions about procedures used by the state and a contractor to make the payments.

During the days surrounding Thanksgiving, the state double-issued 7,500 child support checks. At the last reported count, Missouri had recouped only $391,000 -- $232,000 by reclaiming electronic deposits and $159,000 through voluntarily returned checks.

It appears the Thanksgiving holiday period had something to do with the error. That is when the Georgia-based contractor, Systems and Methods Inc., which collects and disburses child support payments, accessed the same state-supplied payment list and ordered a bank to issue the checks.

Neither the state nor contractor has assumed responsibility. State child support director Gary Bailey said the contractor could have realized the list was the same as was accessed before by looking at the computer file's identification number. The contractor's project director insisted the company followed procedures of the past. He said he didn't know if employees looked at the identification number or if that is part of their normal procedure.

Under questioning later by state lawmakers, Bailey said his office since has changed the way it handles payments over holidays,

The state asked that recipients of the duplicate checks voluntarily return them. That, however, is highly unlikely since many of those who received them need the money, and Christmas is approaching.

The state since has changed its practice and will send an electronic file to the contractor specifically stating that there are no payments on state holidays. That should avoid the possibility of future double payments over holiday periods, according to Bailey, who stressed that the change should not be construed as an indication the state bears any blame.

Bailey said the balance will be charged to the contractor, which is paid $7 million annually to process the checks. But unless the contractor assumes responsibility, the state won't recoup the money, short of going to court.

Mistakes happen, but it is rare to hear of government or a business issuing duplicate checks in such quantity and amounts, particularly so close together.

Regardless of who is to blame, the state must make sure that such a mistake doesn't happen again, and that the overpaid money is somehow recouped. Taxpayers, after all, shouldn't have to pay for such an embarrassing mistake.

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